by Carol Rocamora
“I don’t have a history. I don’t have a heritage. I don’t know who I am!”
Such is the existential cry of Akeem, the protagonist of Hammaad Chaudry’s compelling family drama called An Ordinary Muslim. It’s an anguished cry about Pakistani identity in Great Britain today – one that tears him and his tight-knit family apart.
Can you blame him? This young, brown-skinned British-born man is being challenged by everyone around him. “Be a confident Muslim!” says his traditional friend Hamza (Sathya Sridharan). “Integrate! You can’t fight the world!” says his white colleague David (Andrew Hovelson). “They don’t promote Pakistanis here!” warns his father (Ranjit Chowdhry), who counts on Akeem for financial support. Meanwhile, his wife and parents thrilled by the prospects of his promotion at a West London bank.
But Akeem (Sanjit De Silva), more than everyone around him, sees the truth of the situation. “In this country, a good Muslim is an invisible Muslim,” he declares. He struggles against the stereotypes of “the house Paki” or “the token Muslim” (as he puts it), telling his wife Saima (Purva Bedi) not to wear a hijab to work, warning Hamza that if he continues to “dress like the Taliban” he’ll end up running a “corner store.” On the other hand, Akeem can’t play the assimilation game either, and shows up at his promotion interview without a tie, refusing to pander to his bigoted boss.
Akeem finds himself in an impossible bind, as a casualty of the turbulent history of Muslim immigration. “Maybe we should hide away and do as we’re told,” he says bitterly. Besieged on all sides, he implodes. He quits his position, and ends up taking a menial one that feeds into the Pakistani stereotype against which he’s struggling so bitterly. “I’ve never hated myself so much,” he confesses, descending into a downward spiral that those around him can’t stop.
In Chaudry’s riveting drama, both generations suffer. Familiar and marital ties are tested, as traditions are challenged and changing times place demands. Akeem’s parents are well educated and cultured, but, as immigrants, they struggle with the loss of property, status, and their own imperiled identity. To add to these mounting pressures, they’re being judged by their more traditional friends, Hamza and his father (Harsh Nayyar). Consequently, they take it out on each other. Both parents beat their children when they were young, and Akeem’s father still strikes his mother (Rita Wolf). Akeem’s sister Javeria (Angel Desai) is conflicted with hostile feelings for her mother and at the same time a sense of loyalty and responsibility for both parents. Meanwhile, Saima, torn by her husband’s confusion, turns to Islam (and Akeem’s traditional friend) for comfort and support. The family fabric is being rent asunder.
Jo Bonney directs a uniformly excellent cast. Sanjit De Silva shines as Akeem, the prism through which these many complex issues are reflected. Angel Da Silva plays his sister with spirit and style, and Purva Bedi is affecting as Akeem’s distressed wife.
“I don’t want a job – I want dignity,” declares Akeem at a crucial moment. His words call to mind those of Arthur Miller, who wrote:
“The tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life to secure one thing – his sense of personal dignity.” Like Willy Loman and other tragic protagonists before him, Akeem faces an identity crisis that is far from “ordinary,” as the play’s ironic title suggests.
For the second season in a row, the New York Theatre Workshop brings us urgent voices speaking out on the complex issues of immigration and assimilation. As Miller says: “attention must be paid.”
Photos: Suzi Sadler
An Ordinary Muslim, by Hammaad Chaudry directed by Jo Bonney, at the New York Theatre Workshop, through March 25). www. NYTW.org